Tag Archives: accountability

Improving Our Information

For several weeks now I have been teaching a class called “Democracy Lab.” The class reflects the hypothesis that increasing both dialogue and critical thinking skills will improve our democracy. As we discussed the current state of our politics, two key themes emerged, both relating to the information available to voters.  The first theme related to information validation and transparency, and the second to information and mechanisms for holding elected officials accountable.

With the constant push of information – some factual, some made-up, and much of it distorted – it can be hard to sort through the many conflicting accounts of what is happening and why. This often results in the adoption of a partisan lens, simple tuning out, or over-reliance on what “feels right”. As noted in a prior post, we need new filters.  Simply voting once every four years is not a structure in which the citizen voice is easily heard and interpreted.

Our class generated a range of ideas on how government might work with its citizens to improve information flows and ultimately accountability.  Some were relatively simple, such as requiring the president to sign a HIPPA waiver allowing key information on health to be disclosed and disseminated in a prescribed way that took into account national security concerns. Others were more complex.   These included the following, all of which are worthy of further dialogue:

+ Develop a rating system for different types of reporting so citizens could more easily sort through information — unrated sites would be a form of rating. Something like this is emerging for on-line reporting. The class didn’t think though that these ratings could be left to the market, or to elected or appointed officials. One approach identified for engendering trust especially on issues requiring technical or scientific knowledge would be for known professional organizations and civic groups to appoint representatives to an oversight board, and the board be funded through a mix of private and public donations.

+ Require a “state of the union” exit report that follows a prescribed form, is audited by the GAO, and that is disseminated widely.  This could be modeled on the “exit memos” that President Obama had each agency prepare. These were unfortunately ignored by much of the media and few in the public were even aware of their existence or content. The exit memo from the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, included a review of what had been learned fighting the H1N1, Ebola and Zika viruses, and recommended the establishment of a new Public Health Emergency Fund, warning that “a ready supply of financial resources is necessary for rapid response to emerging public health threats and would save lives, save money, and protect America’s health security.” How might widespread public knowledge of that warning have affected public support for the tax cuts that occurred in the next few years? Members of our class would have welcomed wider dissemination and discussion of these memos and their recommendations.

+ Create a public dashboard administered by the GAO that allows the public to easily track progress (or lack of progress) on key legislation and the promises made as that legislation was pushed through, and also track diversion of funds from their budgeted purposes. Class members agreed that when public money is being spent the public deserves to know whether the anticipated benefits materialize or whether that money is being diverted to another purpose and why.

Our founding fathers viewed an informed electorate as a safe-guard for our democracy and our freedoms. We need better dissemination of not just data and opinions but also the historical and current context of key issues and the trade-offs to be made as we apply limited funds to meet a range of needs. This would equip voters to better inform themselves and to hold their elected representatives accountable for both the decisions they make and the narratives they share.

Accountability and Time Frames

One factor that has severely eroded our communal problem solving capacity is news and electoral cycles that are shorter than the long-lived consequences of various actions and policies.  The approach of reporting on political issues as if they were short term sporting events (who’s winning, who’s losing? who landed the latest blow? will it slow the opponent down?) further obscures the complexities of the issues at hand.  We rarely look back at the choices both made and not made and how they might have compared.  And we rarely look at what questions were not asked that might have led to a different result.

The Indiana Public Utilities Commission in an order addressing a request for emergency rate relief quoted last year from “The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable Event” by Nassim Nicolas Taleb (Random House, 2007):  “We concentrate on things we already know and time and time again fail to take into consideration what we don’t know.”  The Commission rejected claims that the “emergency” triggering the request for rate relief was a “black swan” event — defined as an event that is unpredictable, carries a massive impact, and compels us after the fact to make up an explanation that makes it appear less predictable.  More often we are the victim not of an truly unpredictable event but of an unwarranted optimism at the outset, the failure to identify or analyze alternative (and likely) scenarios, and the failure to look at the interactive consequences among related issues.   This failure to plan for the long term in favor a short term benefit (such as keeping taxes or rates lower than they might otherwise be) is reflected in our deteriorating highways, bridges, utility infrastructure, and school systems.  Another example is the failure to look at the long term costs of imprisonment in favor of short term appeals to “law and order”, which resulted in a rapid rise in prison populations due to the incarceration of low-risk, non-violent offenders, and burdened state budgets to the extent that many states are now quietly looking for less costly alternatives.  Yet another example from recent years is the optimistic re-allocations of state funds for ethanol production, which unexpectedly raised animal feed, and ultimately food prices as demand for corn surged.

Lurching from crisis to crisis does not enhance our communal life.  As we design new structures for public dialogue, we can also expand our evaluation processes to focus on what have we learned and how we can ask better questions so as to make better choices.  As we look back at decisions made we might ask what data was missing and why? How can better data be obtained in the future?  What interactive effects were observed among issues and how can those be better anticipated?  Are there better, less costly ways to make progress towards a desired end?  Would the issues look dramatically different if we were looking at a 5, 10 or 20 year time frame?  Which frame best fits the need we are trying to meet?   This approach might also help us move beyond the winner-loser mentality of our current politics, and focus on who is helping us think in sustainable ways, and who is not.

Accountability and Civility

On August 8, 2011 Resolution 108, which reaffirms the principle of civility as a foundation for democracy and the rule of law, was unanimously adopted at the American Bar Association’s Annual Meeting.  Although directed towards lawyers, it summarizes much of what is needed to turn our civic conversations toward productive dialogue and away from rancorous partisan contests.  In the words of the supporting text,

“Words matter.  How we treat each other matters.  In our public discourse, it is time to begin talking to each other with mutual respect.”

The resolution urges all those involved in government, as well as citizens,

“to strive toward a more civil public discourse in the conduct of political activities and in the administration of the affairs of government.”

The supporting text sets forth some concrete steps that will be familiar to most dialogue proponents — tone down the rhetoric; demonstrate respect for opposing views; listen to the needs, interests and concerns that underlie those views; try to identify common ground on which a mutually acceptable solution might be built; and try to actually engage on issues rather than merely score political points (p. 7).   “To actually engage on issues”, we believe, includes a willingness to work  with data (and to fairly report the context, assumptions and methods behind that data), to analyze consequences and results, and to acknowledge what is working or has worked.

As the text supporting the resolution notes (pp. 2-3), “acrimony and venom” in public discourse endangers the quality of decision-making on complex issues, limits the potential for problem-solving, and undermines the trust needed for effective governance.  In the long term, holding each other accountable for how decisions are made can improve our quality of governance.

Accountability and Context

As noted in our first post in this series on accountability, accountability is a key component of building the trust needed for effective dialogue.   Part of accountability is reporting back, although that reporting needs to be relevant to the needs and concerns of the audience if it is to build trust.  As we noted in our second post, the best reports of progress are aligned with clearly identified citizen priorities and help citizens understand the consequences of various actions and policies.  This type of alignment is more likely to occur if the context for reports on progress is established in advance, through dialogue on what is needed or beneficial for the community.  When the purposes and assumptions that underlie various goals are articulated in advance, the subsequent sharing of data supports ongoing and productive dialogue over changing needs, shrinking resources, and conflicting priorities.  This in turn allows more integrated solutions to emerge, and promotes public acceptance of tough decisions.  This is the progression illustrated in the data to wisdom continuum.  Examples of communities (in addition to those mentioned in our last post) that have or are developing dialogues that support accountable, collaborative governance include:  Decatur, ILManor, TX, and Baltimore, MD.